Before anyone can begin communicating accurately, they must accurately determine that other person's situation. For a counsellor this means assessing the client’s internal and external situation: environmental and social factors, as well as personal, emotional, and perceptual factors.  Although many clients will share common problems and needs, it is a mistake to take a blanket approach to Careers Counselling, or to assume that all clients need the same things. Therefore, the Counsellor's first task is to assess the client’s situation and determine his or her needs. This requires careful and active listening.

Active listening involves listening on several levels: listening to the words the client says; listening to the tone of voice and language used; and observing the client's body language. This holistic approach to listening will provide the counsellor with many clues to the client's real attitude and feelings, which may not be expressed in words, and which may even be hidden by the client's words.

Language is as much about hiding information as it is about revealing information. For instance, when a young man says, "I haven’t had time” he might seem to be stating a neutral fact but his short statement and brief smile might hide his true feelings. Only by noting the sad tone of his voice and slightly slumped body posture when he speaks might the counsellor realise that he is also communicating shame at his lack of action, or a sense of failure.  Therefore, a Counsellor must be prepared to actively listen to each client in order to better understand what the client really thinks and feels.

Some basic guidelines to active listening are:

  • Maintain eye contact to show that you are really interested in what the client has to say. This will also encourage the client to speak more freely. (However, since some cultures discourage sustained eye contact, take your cue from the client. If he/she makes eye contact, so can you; but if the client continually averts his/her eyes, you might be wiser to do the same).

  • Be quiet and listen. Do not confuse listening (which is one set of actions) with giving advice or suggestions (another set of actions). Your listening task is to encourage the client to speak.

  • Try to work out the main message. Ask yourself, "What is the client feeling?" and "What facts do I need to confirm that I have understood? You can find out by asking short, open questions, such as "How did you feel when that happened?" or "What is the main thing that you dislike about that?”

  • Check that you understand what the client is actually trying to communicate. You can do this by clarification and paraphrasing.

  • Clarification means finding out exactly what the other person means. You can do this with an open question like, "Can you explain what you mean by ‘personality issues’ so that I understand exactly what you're saying?"

  • Paraphrasing means checking that you have understood something by re-stating it in your own words. For example, you might ask, "So what you are saying is that you feel your previous boss didn’t want to work with a female supervisor, is that correct?" or "Can I just check that I have understood you? I think you are saying that…Do I have an accurate picture?"

  • Accept the person's feelings without judgement or opinion.

  • Remain calm, unemotional and empathetic. Your role as careers counsellor is to be receptive, to try    to understand the client and support him/her through change and growth, not to judge. Empathy is the quality of showing care without becoming involved.

  • Summarise what you think the client really wants and needs, and ensure that the client agrees with you that these are his or her main needs. This may require discussion.